TOADTalk: Lessons on Living to be 100

When she lost track of her grandmother while they traveled together in Spain, Melanie León lost her cool; her abuelita stayed calm. In her TOADTalk before final exams, Ms. León encouraged students to channel her abuelita, “stay calm and have patience and faith in yourselves.”
The time leading up to final exams each trimester are undoubtedly the most stressful times of the school year. In her TOADTalk, Melanie León, the Teacher On Active Duty (TOAD) for finals week, took the opportunity to share a story about calmness in stressful situations. This story about her grandmother can be a lesson for us all.

I’ve been thinking about age a lot lately. Mainly because Mr. Schuhl just turned 45, and I’m turning 40 at the end of the year. When I was younger, I definitely considered someone in their 40s as “old,” but that doesn’t seem old any more. Well, I still think it sounds old, but, honestly, and I know this is totally cliché, you really are only as old as you feel, and I don’t feel old yet.

So, all this thinking about age got me thinking about my abuelita (that’s grandmother for those of you who didn’t see In the Heights two weekends ago—shout out to the cast and crew for putting on one of the best high school musicals I’ve ever seen).

I’d say my abuelita redefines what it means to be 96. Amazingly, she still lives on her own. Granted, family stops by on a daily basis to check in on her. And, even at 96, she still travels the world.

Just a few weeks ago, she and my tío (uncle) traveled to Puerto Rico. And a few summers ago, while spending time in Colombia, she hiked the three-mile loop in the Tayrona National Park, where temperatures typically reach 90 degrees. She was 93 when she did it—no wheelchair, no walking cane. She kept up with my teenage cousins and probably could have walked another three miles if they had asked her to.

I was lucky enough to go on one of these adventures with my abuelita a few years back. It all started with a phone call from my dad saying she wanted to travel to Spain and needed someone to go with her. I jumped at the opportunity, and we planned a month-long excursion all over the country; starting in Madrid and ending in Barcelona.

As I had expected, after an almost nine-hour flight from Miami to Madrid my abuelita, who was 89 at the time, was ready to explore the city. I think we spent about five hours that day walking around, and she was up early and ready to go every day after that, too. A few days into our trip we jumped on another plane and made our way north to Santiago de Compostela, which sits at the end of one of the most famous Catholic pilgrimages and dates back to medieval times. My grandmother is Catholic, so, needless to say, visiting Santiago de Compostela and getting to attend mass in the cathedral was something very special for her.

Now a bit of back story: At 89, my grandmother’s short-term memory wasn’t what it used to be. My parents had mentioned this to me, but it didn’t seem too bad. She’d forget things here and there, but nothing major.

So, back to our trip. By the time we made it to Santiago de Compostela, we had not only visited dozens of Catholic churches, we had attended mass in every single one of them, and I just didn’t have it in me to sit through another one. Looking back, this was probably not the mass to bow out of, but, selfishly, I did. So, as we made our way to the cathedral, I explained to my abuelita that once the service started, I was going to sneak away and explore the cathedral on my own. She would stay put after the service to give me time to make my way back to her. Mind you, about 1,200 people attend mass there every day.

So, the plan was going well. I snuck away once the service started. I walked the halls of the cathedral admiring the incredible stained-glass windows and religious art hanging from every corner. Once the service was coming to a close, I headed back to see the swinging of the incense burner—known as the Botafumeiro. Unlike most Catholic churches, this incense burner hangs from the middle tower of the cathedral, is massive, and requires six or seven adult men to swing it from one side of the cathedral to the other. It’s an incredibly beautiful and spiritual thing to see. From where I was watching, I could also see my abuelita sitting were I had left her.

Once the mass ended, I pushed my way through the crowds back to the pew where she was sitting, but when I got there she was gone. I decided to look around the inside of the cathedral to see if I could find her—she couldn’t have gone far, right? Well, after what felt like an eternity, I started to panic. I rushed outside and literally ran around the entire cathedral ten times before I frantically called my mom to let her know what had happened. As you can imagine, this was an odd call. “Mom, don’t tell dad, but I lost Abuelita, what do I do?” My mom responded with something like, “Seriously? I’m in North Carolina, what am I supposed to do?” She then basically told me to calm down, check inside the cathedral again, and, if she wasn’t there, head to the hotel. So, I ran back inside to check again—no luck.

As I was leaving to head to the hotel, I saw my abuelita sitting on the steps just outside the cathedral—without a worry in the world. It turns out, she had forgotten our plan and had decided to leave the service a few minutes early to not get lost in the crowd. When she was outside, she just sat down to wait for me and enjoy the beautiful day. I must have run past her each time without noticing her because I was so overwhelmed and in a panic.

When I told her the whole story, she just chuckled. She hadn’t worried at all. She knew everything would be okay. And this is how she lives her life. It’s something my family and I talk a lot about and why we think she has lived such a long and healthy life. Along with being adventurous, my abuelita stays calm and has patience and faith no matter the situation (just like Abuela Claudia in In the Heights).

So, thinking about what’s to come this week with finals, I hope you all can channel my Abuelita Ester and stay calm and have patience and faith in yourselves. Not only will this mindset help carry you through your exams, it might even help you to live a full and adventurous life past 100!
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